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Vintage 1987 Dean Z Autograph Electric Guitar

Mirror Image Guitars (Vintage 1987 Dean Z Autograph Electric Guitar)

If you’d have told me I was going to write an appreciation of a guitar like this Dean Z Autograph—let alone any Korean-made guitar—back in the ‘80s, I probably wouldn’t have laughed outright, but I certainly would have been skeptical. Then again, a good many of us probably couldn’t have imagined people writing books about or paying premium collectible prices for Japanese guitars back in the early ‘70s. Times change and reality and history intervene to challenge our preconceptions!

Vintage 1987 Dean Z Autograph Electric Guitar

Vintage 1987 Dean Z Autograph Electric Guitar

Now that Japanese guitars are too expensive to import into the U.S.—and now that most folks understand how good Japanese guitars could be (with a good set-up)—it’s not uncommon for eBay auctions to feature “MIJ” as a positive selling point. And, now that large-scale guitar-making—except for the highest quality custom shop work—has pretty much left Korea, for a combination of economic and political reasons, attitudes are being adjusted once again. Turns out the Koreans had also gotten pretty good a making guitars. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time that “MIK” will become another compelling sales factor when you’re shopping for guitars.

Dean guitars were the brainchild of suburban Chicago native Dean Zelinsky who started building the now legendary upscale, hybrid “Gibson copies” in the late 1970s, like the folks at nearby and contemporary Hamer partly in response to the perceived inattention to quality at Gibson at the time, and partly because Zelinsky liked Explorers and Vees and was annoyed that Gibson didn’t make any fancy flamed-top versions. The former reason might be a debatable point, but there’s no question that those early Deans were darned good guitars.

Vintage 1987 Dean Z Autograph Electric Guitar

Vintage 1987 Dean Z Autograph Electric Guitar

Indeed, players thought Deans were so good they were highly successful and the company quickly expanded its offerings. Unable to keep up with demand, Dean inevitably—like virtually everyone else, in time—turned to Japan for help. In 1983, with Guitar Player Magazine doing cover stories on the return of the Strat, Dean came up with it’s own take on a Fender with its first “Super-Strat,” the Bel Aire, one of the first guitars (there are competing candidates) to sport the now-ubiquitous h/s/s pickup configuration. The Bel Aire had a neck and hardware imported from ESP in Japan, though final assembly continued to be Stateside. By 1985 Dean Hollywoods were made in Japan by ESP.

By the end of 1985 Dean had also inked a deal to bring in Dean Autographs, like the one seen here, made in Korea. I’m actually not sure who made these guitars. Even though Korea had (and has) a number of guitar factories, most OEM work was done by either Samick or Cort and the odds are that the Autographs came from one or the other.

Vintage 1987 Dean Z Autograph Electric Guitar

Vintage 1987 Dean Z Autograph Electric Guitar

So, get over any contemporary reservations about Korean guitars and look at this with a modern eye, and you have to admit it’s pretty snappy! I’ve never been a fan of black guitars but make the black super-high-gloss, add a white lacquered fingerboard, and slap a mirror on the front and you have my attention. In addition to having the usual Super-Strat features, this also has a neck-tilt adjustment feature to let you fine-tune your action without taking everything apart. A lot of people obsess over pickups, which I’ve never really understood. Almost no one plays an electric guitar through a solid-state amp set to give clean, neutral sound, which is the principal way you’d get to hear mainly pure pickup. Color your sound with a tube amp, pump up the bass, or, horrors, shoot the signal through a distortion pedal with a touch of reverb, like most of us do, and as long as you’re getting some output it doesn’t really matter what pickups you have. You’re going to color the sound electronically. I’m sure that’ll rile some folks. Whether you agree with this last point or not, the Dean Autograph holds up as a swell, classy shred machine.

Vintage 1987 Dean Z Autograph Electric Guitar

Vintage 1987 Dean Z Autograph Electric Guitar

This guitar has a serial number of 8700430. Since the Autographs were made from 1985-87, I presume the “87” is date encoding. I have no idea if these are relatively rare or common. They don’t come up for sale that often, but that many not mean much. I suspect it’s a lot like 1960s Japanese guitars. They weren’t that rare (although less plentiful than most of us think), but no one ever imagined they’d be collectible in the future, so few people held onto them. By the time Zelinsky got into Korean-made guitars, he’d grown tired of the guitar biz and he shuttered the original Dean doors in 1990, off to make furniture.

Dean guitars are back in business, of course, and apparently doing well, including some made in the U.S.A. again. The more I see, the less I know I can predict about how things will eventually turn out. If my wife wouldn’t kill me, I’d start squirreling away some of those Chinese guitars…

Vintage 1987 Cort Star Electric Guitar

K-Pop Star Power (Vintage 1987 Cort Star Electric Guitar)

I must admit I don’t really pay much attention to K-Pop (Korean pop music), which I only know exists because there was a story about in on NPR. These Techno song-and-dance groups are apparently manufactured by the government in order to help shape Korea’s public image. No lie. However, when the Korean performer is a guitar and shaped like a five-point (six with the neck) star—and is finished in purpleburst—it lands at the top of my agenda.

Vintage 1987 Cort Star Electric Guitar

Vintage 1987 Cort Star Electric Guitar

So, what in the world is this guitar? What it is is a circa 1987 Cort Super Star made in Korea. How it made its way to a pawn shop in Pennsauken, New Jersey, remains something of a mystery, but that’s where I first encountered it.

Cort was one of the first serious Korean guitar manufacturers, established in 1973 when the late Jack Westheimer, facing increasingly unfriendly yen-dollar exchange rates, decided to begin moving his guitar manufacturing operations out of Japan to Korea. He partnered with Yung H. Park and formed what would become Cort, an abbreviation of Westheimer’s premier Japanese brand, Cortez. They began with acoustic guitars, later graduating to electrics, all OEM products for other companies. Around 1978 or so quality had finally reached a point where they felt they could begin to use their own brand name and Cort guitars debuted.

Vintage 1987 Cort Star Electric Guitar

Vintage 1987 Cort Star Electric Guitar

Cort did well, primarily as a budget brand. As the ‘80s progressed, Westheimer was increasingly interested in moving his brand up-scale. In around 1987, Cort attempted to introduce guitars that would change its image. Among those was the famous Dragon Sto-Stat, a Strat-style guitar with an abalone and pearl dragon inlaid on the top! I suspect the guitar seen here reflects that transitional period of attempted brand redefinition.
Everything about this guitar tends to point, as it were, to around 1987 give or take (there is no serial number). The twin humbuckers may be Mighty Mites—Westheimer owned them—and the Precision Tune vibrato is a take on a top-mounted Kahler. It wasn’t long after ’87 that Floyd Rose successfully claimed patent protection for all double-locking vibrato systems, putting Kahler out of business and pretty much guaranteeing that locking vibratos would be licensed and follow Rose’s recessed designs. Thus, this guitar is unlikely to come from much later than 1987-88. Weird-colored sunbursts were another popular feature of the 1980s, although generally speaking they were big a few years earlier in the decade.

And, finally, the 1980s was THE decade for strange-shaped guitars, especially among Heavy Metallers, although this doesn’t really strike me as a Heavy Metal axe. Some of those really pointy Ibanezes and Arias, a Gibson Futura: Heavy Metal. But a purpleburst star? Not so sure about that. Maybe Prince. Definitely Prince.

Vintage 1987 Cort Star Electric Guitar

Vintage 1987 Cort Star Electric Guitar

As outrageous as this guitar looks, it plays pretty decently…as long as you play standing up. Even then, well, I don’t know about you but I kind of don’t like to play guitars with pointy parts pointing up and down and in all directions, if you take my meaning. The pickups are basic but decent and I do prefer those top-mounted Kahler-style vibratos. While this isn’t a PRS by a long-stretch, it’s a respectable, well-made guitar. (Still a bit leery about those points.)

But, assuming I’m right about this being part of Cort’s efforts to upgrade the image of its brand, it was another dead end. Don’t just take my word for it. How many Cort Super Stars have you seen? Better yet, take a look at it! Yeah. Let’s be honest, I fell in love with it because it was pretty much a joke.

Cort continued to introduce innovations in an attempt to spruce up its brand. By the late ‘90s they were putting out some fine guitars. Their Earth acoustics were all solid timbers and quite elegant, excellent guitars. Electrics like their Matt “Guitar” Murphy Signature, while still not a PRS, were spectacular guitars any company would be proud of.

But the Cort Super Star didn’t quite do the job. Come to think of it, depending on how you feel about tightly choreographed girl-group technopop, I’m not so sure K-Pop is going to rehabilitate the Korean brand either. It’s sort of like sharp points on a guitar. But that’s just me.

Vintage 1980's Peavey T-25 Electric Guitar

T for Two (Vintage 1980’s Peavey T-25 Electric Guitar)

Any time you identify a “first,” there’s always some other dude who shows up to spoil the party and own the claim. However, I think it’s safe to assert that the first company to use computer numerical control (CNC) carving machines to build guitars in the U.S. was Peavey Electronics. About the same time in Japan Fujigen Gakki began employing similar technology, so who has bragging rights to the true first may never be settled, if any of us care.

Vintage 1980's Peavey T-25 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1980’s Peavey T-25 Electric Guitar

I guess if you have a job working for Peavey in Mississippi you care about CNC-carved guitars because they help feed your family. In any case, I don’t think there are any production guitars made today that don’t come out of a CNC machine, so Peavey was a real pioneer who rarely gets the credit that’s deserved.

According to Hartley Peavey, the original idea for using CNC machines to help build guitars came from the manufacturing of gun stocks, as in rifles and shotguns. Peavey’s chief designer Chip Todd started working on the idea as early as around 1975. Along the way Chip and his crew worked with Hollywood steel guitarist and amp repairman Orville “Red” Rhoads to come up with that nifty circuitry where the guitar is wired so that the tone pot works as a coil tap when it’s turned down below 7 or 8. Peavey also developed and patented a new “bilaminated” neck, which basically fused two pieces of maple with the grain going in opposite directions to combat warping. The result was the T-60 (two humbuckers) and T-30 (three single-coils) guitars and T-40 bass, which were introduced in early 1978. The “T” prefix was shorthand for Todd, though it later got reinterpreted to stand for “Technology.” I’ve always thought the T-60 was a really handsome axe, although I’ve never warmed to frets hammered right into the neck. Obviously, not everyone feels the way I do.

Vintage 1980's Peavey T-25 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1980’s Peavey T-25 Electric Guitar

Originally the T-60 was made of natural-finished ash, but later sunburst finish and I think maple body options were added, as well as a rosewood fingerboard for curmudgeons like me. Peavey’s T-60, T-30, and T-40 were a little, how shall we say, 1970s in their look. They must have been moderately successful because Peavey decided to stick with guitars.

In 1982 Peavey had Chip Todd revamp its T (now “Technology”) line, just before Todd got hired away to Fender. To the casual eye the new T guitars—T-15, T-25, T-26, and T-27—looked a lot like the previous T-60, but there were subtle changes. Todd had lightened the guitars with less dense timbers, added new high-output Super Ferrite “blade-style” pickups, and a variety of pickup configurations. The cutaways were also deepened a bit to improve access up the neck. These new Ts also came with some new finishes, including the jet black seen here and a few metallic paints, including a turquoise and a brown. To my taste, these still look a little too retro ‘70s, but it wouldn’t be long before Peavey got into the weird shapes (like the Razer) that were becoming popular with the heavy metallists of the times.

Vintage 1980's Peavey T-25 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1980’s Peavey T-25 Electric Guitar

The T-15 was a shortscale guitar with a pair of single coils and a bridge/tailpiece assembly. The T-25 seen here has twin humbuckers and the cast bridge. The T-26 had three single-coil pickups in a Strat-style configuration. The T-27 had a humbucker and two single-coils, one of the early guitars to feature this. The T-30 went back to the three single-coils. The T-25 pictured is called the T-25 Special, which presumably refers to the fact that it has a phenolic fingerboard instead of the usual maple.

I don’t think these Peaveys are especially rare, due in part to the fact that CNC machines can pretty much work as long as you want. On the other hand, these later T Series were only promoted in 1982 and by ’83 Peavey was on to the Razer et al. By mid-decade Peavey had move on into much more exotic territory with guitars with fancy figured tops and all sorts of new developments.

Vintage 1980's Peavey T-25 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1980’s Peavey T-25 Electric Guitar

Still, all these T Series guitars are fun to play and are relics of that seminal era when new manufacturing technology was revolutionizing how modern guitars are made. Part of Hartley Peavey’s rationale was that by using machines, he could keep guitar manufacturing here in the U.S. It’s awfully ironic that the adoption of CNC technology would make it even easier to send guitar production to developing countries where you could make them even cheaper. So, I’m not exactly sure what the reward is for being “first!”

Riverhead Unicorn Series Guitar Ad

Searching for Spock (Vintage 1984 Riverhead Unicorn Electric Guitar)

In a Trekkean view of the electric guitar universe, space is populated by all sorts of exotic and unique tribes and creations. You got your Fendermen and Gibsonians and other assorted “normal” beings. Then you have a whole bunch of guitars related to potatoes, like Micro-Frets and Ibanez Musicians, frequently from the 1970s, as it happens. You have your usual run of space weapons, like Vees and Explorers. And then you have assorted vehicles, like Dave Bunker’s guitars, the Burns Flyte, or the Riverhead Unicorn seen here.

Vintage 1984 Riverhead Unicorn Electric Guitar

Vintage 1984 Riverhead Unicorn Electric Guitar

You can probably justifiably consider certain lap steel guitar designs to be the forerunners of the headless guitar. Oh, like all guitars they need some basic structural components and they need some sort of tuning mechanism, but they kind of reduce the guitar to a plank with strings. You even orient to them in a different way that kind of negates the idea of a head.

Whether or not you buy that argument, probably the first headless guitar I’m aware of was Dave Bunker’s appropriately named Astral Series Sunstar, which debuted in around 1966. Dave rather brilliantly stripped the guitar down to its essence, then appended all these removable pods and appendages (including detachable head), making it truly a Starship Enterprise! I don’t know exactly when New York guitarist Alan Gittler began his experiments on minimalist guitars, but I think it was after Bunker.

It was, of course, Ned Steinberger (and his principal disciple, as it were, Andy Summers of The Police) who codified the headless guitar concept right around the end of the 1970s. Cort in Korea licensed the design and produced a number of brands popular in the early 1980s. I have one that I used to be able to cram on top of the family’s shore supplies when we vacationed. It’s in the context of those New Wavey guitars of the early 1980s that this rather fetching Riverhead belongs.

Vintage 1984 Riverhead Unicorn Electric Guitar

Vintage 1984 Riverhead Unicorn Electric Guitar

The Riverhead story is a little hard to piece together coherently. They were primarily made in Japan by the Headway company and briefly in the mid-1980s were imported into the U.S. and actively marketed. Headway, it appears, began as a high end acoustic guitar maker in around 1977 in Matsumoto City, basically the epicenter of Japanese guitarmaking. In 1981 Headway made the transition to electric solidbody guitars. Information is sketchy, but it seems they began with Fender-style copy guitars, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. They seemed to have used the Headway name, as well as the brands Bacchus and Momose, named for the luthier and Headway founder Yasuo Momose, who’d learned his art at Fujigen Gakki, builder of Ibanez and Greco electrics. There have been other brand variations, including, obviously, Riverhead.

Online sources (which seem credible) suggest that Headway experienced two factory fires in 1983, which ended in the construction of the Asuka electric guitar factory in Matsumoto in 1983, coincidental with the launch of the Riverhead brand. Unlike the Bacchus copies, Riverheads seem to have been Headway’s “high tech” line. Another source suggests that Headway made all (or most) of its own components. Certainly its guitars had many unique and innovative features, like vibratos designed to pivot two ways.

Riverhead’s Unicorn Series was distributed in the U.S. by a company called Prime, Inc., of Marlboro, MA, the same outfit that imported those curious Quest guitars. Designed somewhat after the fashion of the Burns Flyte guitars, Unicorns came with either two single-coil or, as here, two humbuckers. These were probably a unibody construction, with a mahogany core, though the wings might have been added on. Their advertising in late 1984 touted the fact that the pickups were mounted directly on top of the body for maximum tone. The heavy duty cast adjustable bridge/tuner assembly is very similar to a Steinberger, though I’m sure it was Headway’s own innovation. For such a high tech looking axe, it’s actually pretty basic, with a simple threeway select, one volume and two tone controls. Still, you’d look pretty darned cool in your orange and black Starship Trooper jumpsuit, eh?!

The Riverhead Unicorns were promoted in 1984 and ’85, so they were around at least in that time frame, probably 1983-85 or ’86 at the latest. They’re not exactly plentiful. Prime seems to have had a presence in the Northeastern U.S. I don’t know if they achieved much national distribution. The online sources suggest that Riverhead brand guitars were produced until 1997, after which Japanese production stopped. Japanese guitar production recommenced in 1999 and continued at least into 2009, although the company operates factories elsewhere in Asia. At this writing, Headway’s web site was not active.

I’ve always thought the headless technology was cool, but I was never a New Agey kind of guy, and I wouldn’t look good in an orange and black jump suit. I always found I liked a head to help me know where I should stop. Guess I occupy more of that boring normal part of the guitar universe than I care to admit!

Riverhead Unicorn Series Guitar Ad

Riverhead Unicorn Series Guitar Ad

1985 Riverhead Unicorn Series Driving Force

1985 Riverhead Unicorn Series Driving Force

Vintage 1986 Kramer Ferrington KFT-1 Acoustic-Electric Guitar

The Softer Side of Hard Rock (Vintage 1986 Kramer Ferrington KFT-1 Acoustic-Electric Guitar)

It’s funny how history and evolution work. They follow a loosely Hegelian dialectical process of first going one way, then leaping to an opposing pole, and finally ending somewhere in the middle, only to start the process over again. This Kramer Ferrington acoustic-electric reflects one of those dialectical swings that occurred in the mid-1980s.

Vintage 1986 Kramer Ferrington KFT-1 Acoustic-Electric Guitar

Vintage 1986 Kramer Ferrington KFT-1 Acoustic-Electric Guitar

You know the evolution of popular music in the late 1970s and early 1980s as well as I, so there’s no need to venture a reading here. But somewhere along the way, the non-stop “heavy metal” of the early years morphed into a poppier hard rock, still full of biting guitar riffs. Then one day, it became a requisite to incorporate a “power ballad” into your repertoire. This was usually a slower love song—still played loud—that featured some generally elementary fingerstyle guitar playing on an acoustic-electric guitar. All well and good. But you had your hard rock image to keep up, and, well, let’s face it, an Ovation with wooden epaulets wasn’t exactly going to cut it. What to do?

Leave it to Kramer Guitars to come up with the perfect solution in around 1986: Kramer Ferrington acoustic-electric guitars. Make the acoustic-electric look like a way-cool solidbody electric and you could be both tough and gentle at the same time!

Vintage 1986 Kramer Ferrington KFT-1 Acoustic-Electric Guitar

Vintage 1986 Kramer Ferrington KFT-1 Acoustic-Electric Guitar

Ferrington was not a made up marketing name. Rather, it was the last name of Danny Ferrington, somewhat of a celebrity luthier living in Nashville at the time who’d built guitars for a number of stars. Ferrington’s main thing was to design guitars with asymmetrical or unusual shapes. I’m not sure whether Ferrington made the Strat- and Tele-shaped designs before hooking up with Kramer or not, but he designed these, the KFS-1 and KFT-1, for Kramer and they debuted in 1986, made in Korea. I interviewed Mr. Ferrington when reviewing a book on his guitars that came out in 1992. That book, by the way, was asymmetrically shaped and beautiful. It didn’t sell well, so you’re likely to find copies still available and should pick one up for your library.

Kramer Ferringtons had very lightweight bodies and came in black, white, red, and sunburst. They had a transducer pickup under the saddle with volume and tone controls. The necks were bolted on and featured a variety of headstock shapes and fingerboard inlays that evolved over the life of the line. By 1987 some plainer KFS-2 and KFT-2 models were introduced, mainly without neck binding and with dot inlays. The KFT-1 seen here was built in 1987.

Vintage 1986 Kramer Ferrington KFT-1 Acoustic-Electric Guitar

Vintage 1986 Kramer Ferrington KFT-1 Acoustic-Electric Guitar

In 1988 Kramer introduced Ferrington Signature models which were supposed to be made by Danny Ferrington himself in the U.S., or at least under his supervision. Marketing and reality are often at odds when it comes to classic Kramer guitars, so who knows! But they probably were American made and not Korean. These were upscale guitars with solid spruce tops, set-in necks, and asymmetrical Ferrington shapes. I think these are pretty rare birds. I only ever saw a couple of them in stores and they were pricey and hung around for quite awhile.

The Kramer Ferrington line lasted until the end in 1990, when Kramer imploded. Danny Ferrington relocated to Los Angeles and marketed the KFS-1 and KFT-2 with the Ferrington brand name for a bit, but the guitars trailed off fairly quickly. I don’t know if the Korean-made Kramer Ferringtons were plentiful or not, but it’s fairly easy to find them for sale. Kramer was pretty good at selling guitars.

Vintage 1986 Kramer Ferrington KFT-1 Acoustic-Electric Guitar

Vintage 1986 Kramer Ferrington KFT-1 Acoustic-Electric Guitar

Likewise, I don’t really know if these guitars made it into too many hard rock acts. They certainly had a rock ‘n’ roll vibe and would look cool on stage. They’re fully functional, but, frankly, if you’re into real acoustic-electric guitar, they’re more of a novelty. They might make you look good jumping off your amp, but if you want a really good acoustic-electric sound, you’re going to go for one of the solidbody guitars like a Gibson Chet Atkins or, for that matter, an Ovation (with wooden epaulets).

Not long after Kramer Ferringtons bit the dust, the power-ballad-infused hard rock that was their reason for existing also fell from grace, replaced by the “alternative” sound typified by Nirvana et al. History was off on another dialectical tangent.

Vintage 1986 Kramer Ferrington KFT-1 Acoustic-Electric Guitar

Vintage 1986 Kramer Ferrington KFT-1 Acoustic-Electric Guitar

Vintage 1981 Renaissance Bass Guitar

I Can See Clearly Now (Vintage 1981 Renaissance Bass Guitar)

Knowledge can be a terrible thing, especially if you’re a collector like me. Once I learn about a subject—say, an obscure guitar maker with connections to bigger things that almost no one knows about—I want one, or two. Never fails. That’s how I ended up with this 1981 Renaissance bass.

Vintage 1981 Renaissance Bass Guitar

Vintage 1981 Renaissance Bass Guitar

Now, basses have rarely spoken to me. I was always a 6-string man. Although, that said, I actually did play bass (and sing) briefly in a band for a few months back in 1967 (a rent-to-own, baby blue Hagstrom, as I recall). Most of the time, in a shop or at a show, I usually walked right past the bass guitars.

In any case, the road to my Renaissance began in the shop window of Society Hill Loan on South Street in Philadelphia. I used to work in an office tower near City Hall. I was a writer and no one paid attention to us, so I found that on my lunch break I could zip out, hop on a bus, and in a few minutes find myself walking down 7th Street toward Temptation. South Street was home to a lot of clubs and young hipsters, so naturally Society Hill got lots of interesting instruments.

Vintage 1981 Renaissance Bass Guitar

Vintage 1981 Renaissance Bass Guitar

One day I walked up to the corner display and staring back at me was a clear Plexiglas bass guitar bearing the Renaissance brand. This was one of those RARE instances where the guys in the shop actually knew something about Renaissance. They knew they came from the western suburbs of Philly, maybe Newtown Square, and a music store called Dragonetti’s. This was way more information than the usual shrug and “I dunno” that I usually got. A red hot lead!

I didn’t buy the bass that day. In fact, in a rare occurrence, I didn’t even own any Renaissance gear when I tracked the company down. Which wasn’t all that hard. I just let my fingers do a little walking—this was way before you “Googled” anything—and found Dragonetti’s Music located in Newtown Square, PA, in Ma Bell’s Yellow Pages. A quick call and I reached store owner John Dragonetti. “You know anything about Renaissance guitars,” I asked. “Do I? You can’t imagine how much that cost me.” Pay dirt!

Turns out Dragonetti marked the end of the Renaissance saga, not the beginning. The story began in around 1977 when a young John Marshall decided to go into guitar making instead of college. Marshall had learned how to build guitars from Eric Schulte, a well-known local luthier living in Malvern, PA, a far northwestern suburb of Philly a few miles north of Newtown Square. Marshall got together two partners, recording studio owner Phil Goldberg and studio guitarist and manufacturer’s rep Dan Lamb and founded Renaissance guitars in Malvern.

Vintage 1981 Renaissance Bass Guitar

Vintage 1981 Renaissance Bass Guitar

In search of something different, the trio settled on using Plexiglas, inspired by the old Ampeg Dan Armstrong guitars of a few years earlier. Marshall came up with the design. Both the guitar and the bass were similar to what you see here. Three shades of Plexi were offered: clear, smokey gray, and black. Prototypes were made in late 1977 and production began in 1978.

This bass is the SPB Gold model built in May of 1979, in the smokey grey known as “Bronze.” The neck is 3-piece mahogany. What you can’t see are brass dot position markers along the side of the ebony fingerboard. It has active electronics with two notched filter tone controls, and active/passive switch, phase switch, and a pair of special designed DiMarzio pickups. I’m not really qualified to evaluate basses based on my brief Hagstrom experience, but I think this is pretty top-notch!

However, sales did not go well for Renaissance and the instruments were expensive to make. They needed an infusion of cash. That’s when John Dragonetti was brought in. John Marshall had become disgruntled and left to take a job with Martin. Dragonetti put in some capital and immediately found his new partners absent and in early 1980 pretty much in sole control. He redesigned the instruments in an attempt to make them less expensive to produce, the new shapes reflecting more of a B.C. Rich influence. Sunn amplifiers were interested in purchasing Renaissance, but a fluke accident at the NAMM show scuttled that deal. That’s when the IRS knocked on the door… The end.

Renaissance guitars and basses are relatively rare. Generously speaking there were only about 600 give or take of six various designs. Basses in this design were around 150 in number, divided between two different models, so maybe 75-100 of these were made, at most.

Being Plexiglas, this is relatively heavy. In my dotage, I like light-weight. However, the likelihood that I’ll join a band and play any bass is remote indeed. Also, I tend to stay away from pawn shops, as well. You never know what you’ll learn about, and you know where that can lead…

Vintage 1981 Renaissance Bass Guitar

Vintage 1981 Renaissance Bass Guitar

Vintage 1983 Hondo H-2 Electric Guitar

Ugly Betty (Vintage 1983 Hondo H-2 Electric Guitar)

First of all, let me confess that, despite my affinity for electric guitars, I’ve never been much of a rock ‘n’ roller. Truth to tell, I’m more likely to pick up an acoustic guitar or banjo. But I love the “art” of electrics, and they are fun to play, I admit, especially pushed through my old Rat distortion box. But sometimes that “art” goes somewhat awry. At least, in my aesthetic opinion, that’s what happened with the ’83 Hondo H-2 featured here!

Vintage 1983 Hondo H-2 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1983 Hondo H-2 Electric Guitar

Oh, I played in a rock band in 1967, on my original ’58 Gibson ES-225TD. We did a mean cover of the Boxtops’ The Letter. But by the early ‘70s I was playing and teaching classical guitar. In fact, I pretty much missed the 1970s with my nose in Giuliani barnstormers and my ears glued to Latin and Big Band swing from the 1930s and ‘40s, mostly on original 78rpm discs.

During my cultural exile I continued to read Guitar Player and had perhaps some dim awareness of what was going on. I knew disco was a threat. But I didn’t disco and had put on some weight. Only your fingers move in classical guitar and with Segovia as your model, well… In the early 1980s I decided I needed to get some exercise so I bought a cheap exercycle and set up my KLH stereo with headphones. I’d been reading about this hot-shot guitar player named Randy Rhoads playing behind some dude named Ozzy Osbourne, whoever that was. I bought a copy of Blizzard of Oz, strapped on the ‘phones, and started to pedal.

Vintage 1983 Hondo H-2 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1983 Hondo H-2 Electric Guitar

It took about 12 seconds of Randy Rhoads for me to become a convert to Heavy Metal. Man, could he play guitar. “Don’t ask me, I don’t know” became my anthem. Still is. I started reading Kerrang! Magazine and before long I was collecting LPs by all these British and American bands with steaming lead guitar(s). I never got to where I could wear Spandex or jump off an amp, but I have some great rare metal records in my collection.

One of the first things you noticed back then was that the guitarists liked guitars with odd shapes. There was the occasional Les Paul or Strat, but not that much. Vees, Explorers and even stranger fare were the order of the day, often with custom graphic paint jobs. It was all part of the post-punk gestalt.

There was no immediate impact on my guitar playing or instruments, but there was a latent impression on my tastes. Later, when I began collecting guitars, anything with a weird shape attracted my attention. So, it was inevitable that when I strolled into Sam D’Amico’s music shop in South Philadelphia, this Hondo H-2 would grab me. I didn’t know what it was, but I had to have it.

Vintage 1983 Hondo H-2 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1983 Hondo H-2 Electric Guitar

Indeed, it was this guitar that led me to eventually track down Jerry Freed and write the Hondo history, as imperfect as that was at the time. Back then I didn’t really have much of a context for it, but several decades later it now makes perfect sense. In response to the predilections of the metal guitarists, guitar companies began introducing increasingly unusual guitar shapes. Both Ibanez and Aria had introduced exotic “X”-shaped guitars. The Hondo H-2 was an extreme variation on that theme.

Hondo had been formed by International Music Corporation (IMC) of Fort Worth, Texas, by Jerry Freed and Tommy Moore. In 1969 they decided to get into importing guitars and, in a visionary move, travelled to Korea to see about sourcing guitars there from what would become the Samick company. By the time this guitar was made Korean guitarmaking was on the verge of respectability, but not quite there yet.

This Hondo H-2 was made for a kid who wanted to be Michael Schenker but probably never had more than a dream’s chance. It gives you the right image at the right price, but the laminated plywood body is hardly disguised. The neck is glued in, and the flamed maple veneer is cool. But the two single-coil pickups are kind of a joke on a heavy metal axe. Then again, if you’re playing through a Rat, you really only need a pulse to get something impressive out the other end, so this might not be as bad as it appears! Still, I doubt if Yngwie ever considered one of these!

The Hondo H-2 may not be high electric guitar art, but you gotta admit it’s pretty fetching. It certainly was—and still is—to me. I’m back to losing weight again and if I ever get fit enough for Spandex, I’m thinking of strapping this H-2 on and beginning to work on my amp-jumping skills… Not.

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

Off With Her Head (Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar)

As a rule, I’ve never been too enamored of “pop” music, if you define pop as largely vocal-oriented music with catchy melodies and easy-to-remember lyrics, almost always love-themed. So, ordinarily, a pop band like The Police would be off my radar. Still, Andy Summers was able to weave some pretty interesting guitar textures—without traditional flash solos—behind Sting’s singing, so I paid attention. Besides, it was Andy Summers who almost single-handedly created a market for minimalist guitars like this c. 1985 Austin Hatchet.

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

Summers famously played a headless Steinberger guitar, which is probably the best known minimalist guitar among guitar fanatics. But it certainly wasn’t the first. I suppose the earliest in the category were the first successful electric guitars, the first Hawaiian lap steels. The legendary Ro-Pat-In Electro “frying pan” had a body, neck, and head, but it sure was minimalist! Most electric laps had these elements, but by the 1940s these were pretty perfunctory. How many lap steels are basically a slab of wood with some pickups, a “fingerboard,” and some tuners, reducing a guitar to its bare minimum?

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

I’m not sure who gets credit for building the first minimalist “Spanish” guitar. It pretty much had to be an electric guitar, since acoustics depend on having an acoustic chamber to produce their sound. In 1967 Dave Helland, then a music teacher in Green Bay, Wisconsin, got the idea that an electric guitar needed to be nothing more than a 2×4 with a neck. He had a couple dozen of the legendary La Baye guitars built.

Around the same time Dave Bunker, a guitar player and luthier came up with his Astral guitar designs. These looked like a cross between a Star Trek starship and a guitar. However, many of the parts were screwed onto a minimalist core, so you could customize the way it looked when you performed.

Neither the La Baye nor the Astral guitars were particularly successful, so you’ll be lucky to ever play one. The ultimate in minimalist guitars were probably the so-called “fishbone” jobs built by Alan Gittler in New York during the mid-1970s. These reduced the guitar to a tubular spine and tubular “frets.” Indeed, Andy Summers played one of these for one of his Synchronicity videos. Only 60 of these were ever made before Gittler moved to Israel, where he became Avraham Bar Rashi and contracted out another 240 or so of a slightly more substantial version, still remarkably minimalist.

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

Around the same time that Gittler was building his fishbones, Ned Steinberger was coming up with his small-bodied, headless design, which was produced by Stuart Spector. These went on to become the most famous of minimalists, thanks, in large part to The Police. Steinbergers were, however, expensive. To help fill the void, Cort licensed the design and began producing cheaper versions, bearing the Cort name as well as others, including models for Hohner and Washburn. I have one called Blake that used to be my “shore guitar.” In 1981 Kramer threw its hat in the ring with its aluminum-necked, headless Duke guitar.

None of the guitars mentioned so far were “travel guitars,” strictly speaking, though it was nice that you could pop your little minimalist guitar into the overhead compartment or on top of all your vacation luggage. There were travel guitars in the game at the time, including the little yellow Hondo Chiquita Banana. They were only minimalist in the same sense as the early lap steels in that they were small.

In any case, this was the environment in 1984 when Jack Westheimer of Cort got the idea to come up with his own cross between a minimalist and a travel guitar and designed this guitar. Actually, Westheimer’s inspiration was less the Steinberger or Duke or Chiquita and more the Colt 45 handgun. Yung Park tweaked Jack’s design and in 1985 the Cort 45 debuted. Jack used to laugh that he was the only one who ever connected either the name or the shape of the guitar to a pistol! Obviously the big distributor Targ & Dinner didn’t because they called their version the Austin Hatchet, seen here.

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

Vintage 1985 Austin Hatchet Electric Guitar

If you like playing minimalist guitars, this actually isn’t too bad. The neck-through construction gives it a solid feel. It’s powered by a pair of Korean Powersound humbuckers that are actually pretty darned hot. One of the mini-toggles is a threeway while the other reverses phasing. The headstock and tuners do make it a little top-heavy since there’s not much body to act as a counterweight.

I’ve never seen a Cort 45 and only a couple Austin Hatchets. That’s no evidence, but I don’t think these were too popular! They seem to have been gone by 1986. While other minimalist guitars like the Steinberger soldiered on (even they started getting bigger bodies), the craze for minimalist guitars had pretty much run its course. Which, come to think of it, pretty much also describes The Police, who broke up that same year. I can’t recall listening to any other “pop” bands since then either.

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

Hot For Rare Birds (Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar)

It has always amused me that one of the great tempests in the teapot of guitardom has been the legendary “lawsuit” of the 1970s. You know, when Norlin (aka Gibson) sued Elger (aka Hoshino, aka Ibanez) in 1977 over trademark infringement based upon “copying” Gibson’s headstock design. There are tons of ironies in this story, but one of the most amusing aspects is that companies such as Gibson have been one of the most egregious copyists of its own guitars over the years. Witness the Korean-made Epiphone Firebird 500 seen here:

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

In a general way, the guitar business has always been about copying. It was just usually a bit more subtle. Kay’s and Harmony’s first solidbody electrics in the ‘50s were loose copies of Gibson’s Les Paul. Many of the guitars made in Japan during the 1960s deliberately emulated European guitars. They were the competition, after all. When Gibson started sourcing guitars from Japan in around 1970, the guitars included some Epiphone copies of classic Epis, such as the Coronet.

The apocryphal story about ‘70s copies related to me by the folks at Aria when I was doing that history was that company president Shiro Arai was visiting the NAMM show in 1968 when Gibson re-introduced its Les Paul Custom “Black Beauty.” Mr. Arai thought, “Hmm, so that’s a copy of the original Les Paul Custom, eh?” He went back to Japan and the first bolt-neck Les Paul copies appeared shortly thereafter. That may or may not be true, but it is a good yarn.

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

Most copy guitars from the ‘70s through the early ‘80s were associated with Japanese manufacturers. But by the mid-‘80s the dollar-yen conversion was increasingly unfavorable for Japanese guitars (meaning they cost more than Americans would pop for). Simultaneously, the Korean guitar business had been slowly evolving, with companies such as Samick (Hondo) and Cort producing better and better guitars. The Japanese were markedly superior, but Korean product was coming on strong.

In 1986 Gibson began to shift sourcing of its Epiphone guitars to Korea. Some of these early Korean Epis were nothing to write home about, but others, like this Firebird 500, weren’t too bad.

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

To be honest, I didn’t pay too much attention to contemporary electric guitars during the 1980s. I found this about a decade later in a “cheap guitar stall” at one of those antique malls that seem to come and go like raves. (Does anyone throw raves anymore?! To quote the great Oz, “Don’t ask me, I don’t know.”) I’d never seen this model and it obviously had neck-through construction, which I was into at the time. Also, it was silver. I never got the ‘80s taste for greybursts and silver, which I think is ugly, and which, of course, made it all the more attractive to me. I recall buying this on my lunch break and schlepping it about a mile back to the office in summer heat.

This is actually a pretty cool guitar. It’s made of mahogany. The fingerboard is synthetic ebanol, a kind of interesting alternative to disappearing ebony. Of course, you’d rather have wood, but you don’t build budget guitars with premium materials. At least the inlays are real pearl! The Steinberger KB-X vibrato was new at the time, and a pretty good unit. It took ball-end strings without clipping and you could also adjust spring tension with a lever. You could also lock this down to have a stop-tail with the flip of a switch. I’m not sure why you would want to do that, but it’s still a neat idea. The pickups are stock EMG Selects. I never really warmed to Selects. They had a good frequency response and were exceptionally clean, which made them good for pumping through effects, but they lacked essential character, in my opinion. They came in red, black, sunburst, and this silver.

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

Vintage 1986 Epiphone Firebird 500 Electric Guitar

The Firebird 500 and a downscale 300 were offered from late 1986 into 1988. There are no serial numbers, so this could be from anywhere in that timeframe. No production numbers are available for these models, but scuttlebutt suggests that these are relatively rare guitars. They listed for $825.25, which was pretty pricey for a Korean guitar in the 1980s.

Today, of course, it’s routine for guitar companies to offer all sorts of “copies” of their own lines sourced from any number of factories, usually Asian, sold at various price points. (And sue the pants off anyone else who comes close to copying anything they consider theirs.) There have been numerous subsequent Epiphone Firebirds, but these were the first. And always give me a chuckle when I recall the original brew-ha-ha over the “lawsuit” guitars that started it all.

Kawai Moonsault Guitar (circa 1980s)

Back Catalog Memories: Kawai Moonsault Guitar

 

Kawai Moonsault Guitar (circa 1980s)

Kawai Moonsault Guitar (circa 1980s)

One of the most unconventional and impractical body shapes from the electric guitar world, this Kawai Moonsault was a big hit in Japan. Really. The initial production was 1982 and the build quality was superb as Japanese guitar manufacturing had hit its stride in the early 1980’s, many producing better quality guitar than those in USA. It was available in two models, both with master volume and two tone controls. The tone pots were push/pull for coil splitting, and the other model (pictured below) had additional switches for phase switching and active electronics. I am not sure of the date of this guitar as they continued production into the 1990’s, but very few made their way to North America.

It is a surprisingly lightweight guitar (good, because you’ll have to be standing to play it) that has a fabulous neck profile and Mother of Pearl binding on the headstock for an exotic look. They even had the different phases of the moon depicted in the fretboard inlays. The huge array of tonal options are a highlight to this monster of a guitar, as you can move from single coils to humbuckers with alternate phase for each pickup configuration, then add a 9v battery active boost to all those and you’ve got one versatile player. But remember to stay on your feet!